The Defense Department (DoD) begins furloughs of nearly 650,000 civilian workers this week, amounting to a 20 percent cut in pay for many of those affected. While Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel lowered the number of mandatory days off from 22 to 11 in May, the furloughs will last for up to three months and disrupt operations at installations nationwide.
The Obama administration warned of sequestration doom and gloom when the cuts went into effect. They predicted long waits at airport security due to cuts at the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), weakened security due to furloughs of prison guards, and the FBI and the Pentagon unable to pay medical bills for service members. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted a reduction in nutritional assistance for up to 600,000 low-income women and children. The cuts were supposed to cause headaches for Americans on all levels.
However, since the March 1st sequester began, many agencies have avoided the furloughs that seemed inevitable when the $85 billion budget cuts were triggered. What was seen as impossible by the media at the time was the ability for the administration and Congress to undo many of sequestrations deepest casualties. How did these pending cuts go from severe to a mere speed bump?
[pullquote]While it is still too soon to measure all of sequestration’s effects, so far, many agencies have been able to defer or shuffle funds from one area to another to lessen the blow.[/pullquote] While it is still too soon to measure all of sequestration’s effects, so far, many agencies have been able to defer or shuffle funds from one area to another to lessen the blow. For instance, one of the largest areas affected across all agencies is employee travel. A Market Connections poll highlighted back in March that 38 percent of government employees had planned to attend fewer educational or trade shows in FY2013. Thus far, employee travel and event budget cuts appear to be one of the constant casualties in an otherwise unpredictable sequestration pattern.
The Justice Department prevented furloughs by discovering $300 million in “expired” funds that they technically could not spend in the first place without Congressional approval, as well as saving $45 million in funds allocated for housing possible detainees that did not actually exist in the first place.
Scott Lilly, a former congressional staffer who works at the liberal Center for American Progress stated, “It really was a loophole that allowed the Justice Department to largely escape the consequences of sequester.” The discoveries prevented furloughs in the Justice Department.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) avoided furloughs by shifting $253 million from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, which gives grants to airports. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), meanwhile, used funds for maintenance, employee bonuses and hiring to keep its workforce in place. Congress provided enough funds to keep the USDA on track, allotting money to aid the 600,000 low-income women and children that were predicted to be hurt by sequestration.
While the early rounds of sequestration have not been as severe as originally predicted, the Obama administration is about to gear up another fight in October, when the 2014 fiscal year begins and more cuts are scheduled to occur. Agencies have been able to avoid the worst thus far by digging into their budgets to find money that could be spared, shifted or deferred to the future.
The administration is pushing to get a broader budget deal done ahead of October to avoid a continuous battle in the future. While the past few months have not been as problematic as anticipated, the next few months will set the stage for the next round of potential cuts.